Tertullian, the Pope, and the Church

In March, Lord willing, I will be traveling to Zambia to teach a course on the book of Hebrews to sophomores at International Bible College. In the process of preparing materials for the course I was gathering information for a sidebar on Tertullian and read a great summary and evaluation of his life and ministry:

When one only sees his thought in all its greatness, in the end, it is precisely this greatness that is lost. The essential characteristic of a great theologian is the humility to remain with the Church, to accept his own and others’ weaknesses, because actually only God is all holy. We, instead, always need forgiveness.[1]

Tertullian’s place in the pantheon of theologians is illustrated by some of the appellations given him: “the father of Latin theology”, “the father of ecclesiastical Latin”, etc. Tertullian gave us the word Trinity. He was the first to use “person” and “substance” in Trinitarian discussion. He was the first to refer to the church as “mother.” On estimate credits him with coining over 900 terms. Humanly speaking, Tertullian provided the language of orthodox.

Yet he left the church. Through a desire for more rigorous holiness, he left the church for the heretical fellowship of the Montanists.

This remains a constant temptation. Man is proud. It is easier to look down on others than to come down to help them. There are some who seem to be always exposing the sin of others or trumpeting their own righteousness. It must be a miserable struggle to decide which sin to engage in today. But take rest troubled soul: exalting in your own righteousness or scorning the sin of others both end at the same destination.

One might say that Tertullian is the Barry Bonds of the church fathers. His theological talent and ability is recognized by all, but is forever marked by an asterisk. Because he was too good for the church, Tertullian was not a great theologian.


[1] Pope Benedict XVI, The Fathers of the Church (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 34-35.

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Tertullian: What is the fear of God? How do I know the fear of the Lord?

They say that God is not to be feared; therefore all things are in their view free and unchecked. Where, however is God not feared, except where He is not? Where God is not, there truth also is not. Where there is no truth, then, naturally enough, there is also such a discipline as theirs. But where God is, there exists “the fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10; Prov. 1:7) Where the fear of God is, there is seriousness, an honorable and yet thoughtful diligence, as well as an anxious carefulness and a well-considered admission (to the sacred ministry) and a safely-guarded communion, and promotion after good service, and a scrupulous submission (to authority), and a devout attendance, and a modest gait, and a united church, and God in all things.

(Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, 43)

 

I’ve struggled for quite some time with the explanation I often hear evangelical-types give about the phrase “the fear of the Lord.” “Of course,” we are told, “we do not really fear God, we just have a reverence, or respect for God.” Charmed, I am sure. I always got the feeling that whatever “fear of God” meant, I wasn’t being given a straight answer.

We are proficient at “interpreting” Scripture when it suits us. Rather, when Scripture is against us. Don’t feel like supporting your needy parents? Just say your goods are devoted to the Lord! Who can argue with that? It is not a new problem.

What Tertullian says about the fear of God certainly rings authentic to me. How do I know if a place, a people, is filled with the fear of God?

Is there seriousness?

Is there honorable, thoughtful diligence?

Is there safely guarded communion?

Is there submission?

Devout attention?

Modesty?

Unity?

How would these questions be answered at churches across the land? I fear to even contemplate. What if the answer to these questions is “no”? Then God is not there. Truth is not there.

No fear, no God.

Thank you for good medicine father Tertullian. O for more doctors so careful in their cures.

A Church Father walked into a chapel service in Wisconsin…

“On Thursday, March 15, a plethora of special student-led activities heralded the opening day of the NCAA tournament. The chapel hour was dedicated to the festivities, with the entire Northland family gathering in the gym to hear members of the Athletic Department staff discuss their bracket picks, to watch clips of tournament highlights from the past several years, and to cheer on fellow students who attempted close-up, free-throw line,and half-court shots for a chance to win various prizes. After chapel, pizza was served picnic-style, encouraging students to enjoy the bright sunshine and each other’s company. Dinner was served the same way and was followed by Quartermania in the Rec.Hall, with root beer floats, shaved ice, and various other treats available for $.25 throughout the evening.” (http://ni.edu/about-us/news/spring-2012/march-madness/)

We renounce all your spectacles, as strongly as we renounce the matters originating them, which we know were conceived of superstition, when we give up the very things which are the basis of their representations. Among us nothing is ever said, or seen, or heard, which has anything in common with the madness of the circus, the immodesty of the theater, the atrocities of the arena, the useless exercises of the wrestling-ground. Why do you take offense at us because we differ from you in regard to your pleasures? If we will not partake of your enjoyments, the loss is ours, if there be loss in the case, not yours. We reject what pleases you. You, on the other hand, have no taste for what is our delight.

Tertullian, Apology, 38

Did the Early Church believe in Evolution or Creation?

…listen to the words I am about to say to you. God, who dwells in the heavens and created out of nothing the things that are, and increased and multiplied them for the sake of his holy church… (The Shepherd of Hermas, I.1)

What would be remarkable if God made the world out of preexistent matter? Even a human artisan, when he obtains material from someone, makes whatever he wishes out of it. Bur the power of God is revealed by his making whatever he wishes out of the nonexistent, just as the ability to give life and motion belongs to no one but God alone. For a man makes an image but cannot give reason or breath or sensation to what he makes, while God has this power greater than his: the ability to make a being that is rational, breathing, and capable of sensation. As in all these instances God is more powerful than man, so he is in his making and having made the existent out of the non-existent’ he made whatever he wished in whatever way he wished. (Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum, II.4)

…God, according to His pleasure, in the exercise of His own will and power, formed all things (so that those things which now are should have an existence) out of what did not previously exist. . . They do not believe that God (being powerful, and rich in all resources) created matter itself, inasmuch as they know not how much a spiritual and divine essence can accomplish. . . . While men, indeed, cannot make anything out of nothing, but only out of matter already existing, yet God is in this point pre-eminently superior to men, that He Himself called into being the substance of His creation, when previously it had no existence. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, II, 10)

Now, with regard to this rule of faith – that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend – it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word… (Tertullian, Prescription against Heretics, XIII)

I am fully aware that the contrarian might come along and dispute that these quotes only speak of the initial creation of matter and do not necessarily preclude God using an evolutionary process to guide the progress of creation. They focus on pixels only to ignore the picture.

Theistic evolutionists- whether they hold to the day-age theory, gap theory, literary framework view etc.- wish to impress us with scholarly credentials and argument; the need for cultural relevance; a desire to harmonize, reconcile, correlate science and Scripture. For all of this, they miss the big picture of Scripture:

Elohim is not presented in Genesis 1 as a cosmic sculptor who, in human fashion, with preexisting material, produces a work of art, but as One who merely by speaking, by uttering a word of power, calls all things into being. And with that view the whole of Scripture chimes in. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, II, p. 417)

You do not have to be a narrow-minded, literalistic, simpleton to read the Bible and come away with the impression that God instantaneously created all things out of nothing by his powerful word. In fact, you have to fight against the Scripture to come away with any other impression.